The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust – written evidence (FGU0033)
House of Lords Constitution Committee
Inquiry into the Future Governance of the UK
About the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust
- The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust Ltd (JRRT) is one of three grant making trusts, independent of each other, set up in 1904 by Quaker businessman Joseph Rowntree. JRRT was set up as limited company, not a charity, able to fund political causes. The Trust funds a wide range of campaigns in the UK to promote democratic reform and civil liberties. Our contributions include, the 2006 Power Inquiry, an initiative with the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, to address both the need for constitutional change and to tackle the connected and growing political disengagement in the UK. In 2019 we set up the UK Democracy Fund to tackle political inequality and work for reform of the voting system and increased voter participation. The Fund is supported by a number of Trusts and operates on a strictly nonpartisan basis.
- Increasingly, reports are showing a global dissatisfaction with democracy. In 2020, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Cambridge University, published research that recorded the highest level of dissatisfaction with democracy since the data was first recorded in 1995, with the UK demonstrating a particularly significant increase. In it, a substantial number of questions arise around citizens’ confidence in the in institutions of democracy addressing issues that matter when considering their legitimacy: these include responsiveness to public concerns, ensuring economic and financial security, raising living standards for the majority of society, probity in office, and upholding the rule of law.
- Good governance and accountability are also inextricably linked to questions of trust, an issue which has risen to prominence during the pandemic, and which has profound implications for citizens’ faith in democracy. Declining trust has been accompanied by a greater willingness to entertain radical political change, as shown by the Hansard Society’s 2019 Audit of Political Engagement: increasing powerlessness and disengagement are themes which inform opinions of democratic governance that are at their lowest point in the series’ then fifteen-year history.
Constitution Committee Inquiry into the Future Governance of the United Kingdom
- JRRT welcomes the Constitution Committee’s inquiry into the future governance of the UK and regards it as a significant opportunity to influence the government’s handling of its democratic reform agenda.
- The committee posits five questions regarding our existing constitutional arrangements, the answers to which have important and long-lasting implications for citizens living in the United Kingdom’s constituent nations when translated into policy and given effect through statute and regulation.
- These constitutional arrangements are about the exercise of power on behalf of citizens. In the context of concerns about trust in democracy and the way the wishes of the citizenry are translated into political power, JRRT believes these arrangements should be reviewed alongside consideration of how power is derived. If questions of trust, legitimacy and accountability are to be addressed, the electoral system is a fundamental consideration (particularly given that for elections to executives in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, forms of proportional representation are already operating).
- It is hard to see how the constitutional arrangements identified for the purpose of this review can be detached from the broader issues of the balance between the judiciary, legislature and executive that the government indicated in its manifesto it was going to consider through a substantive Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission – a commitment it appears to have abandoned in favour of piecemeal consideration.
- JRRT believes that – when considering the future governance of the United Kingdom – citizens should be engaged fully in deliberating on how the governing arrangements that will affect their lives should be constructed and implemented. However, expert its participants, there is limited progress that can be made by a parliamentary committee given both the need for public participation and the scale of evidence gathering, sifting and resources required to properly understand the complex relationships between citizen and state, and how power should be balanced across the different nations of the UK and across executive, legislature and judiciary.
- JRRT believes such deliberations should directly inform government decision-making and the models and architecture for governance then implemented.
- As addressing these concerns about the fundamental relationship between citizen and state is inextricably linked to answering the Constitution Committee’s questions, it is essential that mechanisms are adopted to ensure that there is full and proper public participation in arriving at proposals that rebuild trust and establish legitimacy.
- Notwithstanding the important and pioneering work of the legislature on deliberation and the important role that it can play in stimulating debate and informing policy, the executive should be encouraged to engage directly with deliberation, commissioning a high-quality process, such as a Citizen’s Assembly, to inform any decisions that impact on the arrangements for the future governance of the United Kingdom. This should be done with a clear commitment to engage with and respond to its recommendations.
- The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has produced a comprehensive summary of practices worldwide and its conclusions regarding the benefits of institutionalising deliberation bear repeating:
- Lead to better policy outcomes because deliberation results in considered public judgements rather than public opinions. Decision making within deliberative processes is informed by expert knowledge; people’s own experience and values; and input from the broader community, resulting in informed citizen recommendations to policy makers.
- Give decision makers greater legitimacy to make hard choices.
- Enhance public trust in government and democratic institutions by giving citizens an effective role in public decision making.
- Signal civic respect and empower citizens.
- Make governance more inclusive by opening the door to a more diverse group of people.
- Strengthen integrity and prevent corruption by ensuring that groups and individuals with money and power cannot have undue influence on a public decision.
- Help counteract polarisation and disinformation.
- By way of specific examples, the Irish Constitutional Convention demonstrated how deliberative processes can lead to constitutional change and has been extensively documented. Here in the UK, the Climate Assembly UK was the first UK-wide citizens assembly, commissioned by six House of Commons select committees. The government has also already formally acknowledged the importance of connecting citizens with those who govern them, the value of deliberation, and the formal role that can be played by citizens assemblies, in its New Decade, New Approach agreement, which has formed the basis for the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland: “3.9. The Parties have agreed that about 1-2 issues will be commissioned per year for civic engagement. The Panel will be invited to propose the most appropriate model of engagement for specific issues, including one Citizens’ Assembly a year. The issues will be identified by the Executive. Following consideration of the assigned issues recommendations will be made to the Executive by the Panel.”
- There is a shocking scale of political inequality in the UK, with millions of citizens not voting in elections, particularly young people and people from black, Asian and other minority ethnic communities. Their voices are often marginalised or absent in decision-making and that is reflected in the very different but often equally painful experiences of those demographics in the institutional and government response during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- With the pandemic coming so soon after the Brexit referendum, where popular support for the outcome was not shared across the four constituent nations of the UK, it is critical that those concerned with the governance of the UK ensure that the views of those governed are properly and fully accounted for in any future settlement.
- The Constitution Committee’s area of inquiry is critical to the political and democratic health of the UK. In the UK, as demonstrated by the Climate Assembly UK, it is the legislature that has given weight and profile to deliberation and the use of citizens assemblies. JRRT would therefore urge the Constitution Committee to consider very carefully the need to engage citizens on the critical questions it asks, the answers to which will shape all of our lives for decades.
 The Global Satisfaction with Democracy Report 2020, Foa, R.S., Klassen, A., Slade, M., Rand, A. and R. Collins. Cambridge, United Kingdom: Centre for the Future of Democracy, 2020.
 Trust and the Coronavirus Pandemic: What are the Consequences of and for Trust? An Early Review of the Literature, Devine, D., Gaskell, J., Jennings, W., and Stoker, G. Political Studies Association, 2020
 Audit of Political Engagement 16, Blackwell, J., Fowler, B., and Fox, R., Hansard Society, 2019
 See Q90 https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/1369/default/
 Innovative Citizen Participation and New Democratic Institutions : Catching the Deliberative Wave, Chwalisz, C., OECD, 2020